Fear Stimulates Our Senses

This article first appeared in vol.1 of The Baker Street Clarion, October 2008.

Growing up, I knew first hand what it was like to be paralyzed with fear. When the door blew open for no reason, I screamed my head off and not even a whisper of sound crossed my lips.

I was the kid who shied away from shadows, the kid who avoided cracks in the sidewalk, the kid who leapt over the hall floor furnace because a monster lived down there. Needless to say, the superstitions and legends in our small fishing village played havoc with my overactive imagination.

As a teen, I avoided scary movies, roller coasters, and The Twilight Zone television program. They were outright unnerving to me. Though I shied away from Big Scary Things, I turned to books for solace. My favorites were romantic suspense books. Back then, Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart were all the rage. From these authors and more, I learned more about the cycle of fear. I saw fear being elicited by a discreet stimulus, fear helping the heroine to thwart danger, and mastered fear leading to the reward of happiness.

Fast forward a few more years to when I began to write books. The wisdom within the publishing realm said to write what you know. Romantic suspense books appealed to me because the combination of danger and romance spoke to me on many levels.

We have all experienced that unsettling moment when we realized someone was watching us. That prickling sensation on the small hairs of our neck, that slide of cool air against our clammy skin. If it’s the person across the room you want to notice you, this alert system brings pleasure. But if it’s a stranger watching you from a hidden vantage point, your body responds instinctively to the threat.

Your heart rate speeds up. You breathe faster. Your muscles tense. Your body automatically prepares for flight or fight. This response is hardwired from mankind’s earliest days. The people who responded to threats by running or fighting victoriously survived and became our ancestors. Through natural selection, humans became efficient fear machines.

I’ve been married to a great guy for a long while now, but there are times when he unexpectedly appears behind me. My startled scream of terror has both of us clutching our hearts. I’ve learned to be more cognizant of my surroundings, he’s learned not to sneak up on me.

Being in touch with my own fears, I had no trouble foisting them off on fictional characters.

Hope in House of Lies battles abandonment and isolation, beating them to face the gut-wrenching terror of a deranged assassin. When a car tries to force her off the road, her fight or flight instinct saves her life. She reaches deep, conquering her fears to stand up and fight for what is hers. She earns her reward of happiness.

In No Second Chance, Hannah starts out paralyzed by fear of failure. But her love for horses empowers her to face her fear, to triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity. The villain of this story wants to take everything from Hannah. In this high stakes game of life and death, fear keeps Hannah on her toes, making her happily-ever-after all the sweeter.

Recognition of danger starts a chain reaction within our body, dumping a cocktail of thirty different hormones into our bloodstream, priming us for fight or flight. This volatile mix of chemicals creates excitement and even arousal in some people. Romantic suspense books keep readers turning the pages to find out what happens next. This genre melds a love story and a danger story into a satisfying read.

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